Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Libraries Open Doors to STEM Learning

PostedThursday, April 12, 2018 at 1:17 PM

Libraries Open Doors to STEM Learning

In my little town on the coast of Maine, in addition to the books and DVDs at my local library, I can check out a telescope. And a microscope, and binoculars. Each year the library hosts dozens of programs that explore and celebrate the arts and sciences.  My library partners with a local marine research institute, the Audubon Society, the local land trust, horticultural clubs, health organizations, agricultural groups, engineering schools, and national programs like Girls Who Code to provide meaningful STEM experiences for patrons of all ages.  I know that we are lucky.  But I also know that we are not unique.

Libraries across the country have been reimagining their community role and leveraging their resources and public trust to strengthen community-based learning and foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and engagement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Libraries large and small are becoming essential hubs of STEM education for people of all ages. Through free access to the internet, computers, tablets, books, DVDs, workshops and programming, libraries remove barriers to STEM literacy and inquiry. These services are especially vital for children and youth whose families might not have the means for extracurricular STEM enrichment opportunities.

This week, the Berkley Public Library in California is celebrating National Library Week by launching a new initiative, Cornerstones: STEM at BPL.  From a pre-K STEM Playdate to a STEAMBreakers meet-up for professional scientists, engineers, and artists, the library has created a full schedule of events connecting its members to science, technology, engineering, and math resources in the community.  “We’re building STEM programming into the regular operations of the library,” said Sarah Dentan, library services manager in an article in the Daily Californian. “The same way that we support print literacy and cultural literacy, we’re also supporting STEM literacy. While we had been doing that in bits and pieces in the past, we are now saying this is a regular part of what we do.”

telescopeBerkley Public Library is partnering with Cornerstones of Science, a nonprofit that began in 1999 providing STEM resources and programming to one library in Maine and has since grown to partner with libraries in 22 states. Lee Grodzins, the founder of Cornerstones, has an ambitious goal, “That every library in the country, those that are in towns with 2,000 people to those that are in cities with millions... will have science centers whose fundamental objective is to enhance children’s and adult’s curiosity.”  Cornerstones of Science furthers this goal by supplying equipment grants, lesson plans, and professional development for library staff. My town of 2,400 is the fortunate recipient of several Cornerstones grants for the library’s telescope and a 3D-printer.  I have seen first-hand the effect that outside funding and support can have on stimulating STEM engagement.

Sometimes it is the library staff developing innovative programs to reach under-served constituents. At the Sunnyvale Public Library in CA, Youth Services Librarian Nancy Andrus created the MakeHer program, a series of 2-hour hands-on engineering and science workshops for middle school girls and their mothers. Andrus recruits women with STEM expertise to be “LadyMakers” that help design and lead the classes, providing valuable female role models as well as subject fluency. This program has already expanded from the library to the public schools and garnered several impressive awards including the 2017 Microsoft/Krause Center for Education Award for innovative teaching and the 2016 Library Journal Movers & Shakers Award.

STEM to Read 2

In rural New Mexico, the state library partnered with Explora! Museum and New Mexico United Way to develop a pilot program for preschoolers and their caregivers called STEM to Read.  Four libraries participated in the program that provided STEM activity trunks with books, lesson plans, and materials on a variety of STEM subjects including water play, measurements, reflections, and wind power. Librarians could check-out a trunk for 6-8 weeks to use during toddler story-times. In addition to providing age-appropriate hands-on projects for the kids, the program also focused on modeling good parenting skills, so parents and caretakers can continue STEM and pre-literacy teaching at home. (Photo bycourtesy Rio Grande Sun.)

Other public libraries have created maker spaces with special programming to get young patrons interested in engineering and technology. The Pima County Library in Tuscon, AZ holds an annual MakerMania! STEM festival (picture at top) including robotics, stomp rockets, and green screen technology as a way to highlight their STEM resources.  Teen library patrons in Howard County Maryland can join in project-based programs in the library's HiTech STEM Lab. Projects have included the design and build of weather balloons, robots, quadrotor flight controllers (shown below), and hovercrafts.

And it isn’t just public libraries getting in on the STEM action. As states start adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), school librarians are becoming key engineering facilitators as districts begin implementing a more hands-on, problem-solving approach to STEM education.  A great example of this shift comes from Moretown Elementary School in Vermont. While the general education teachers at Moretown Elementary were covering the other components of the NGSS, they weren’t accustomed to teaching the engineering standards, so the school librarian stepped in to teach engineering design with the principal and the guidance counselor.  The result?  Fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students designed the school’s new playground. And by “design,” I mean, they held focus groups with students, consulted on site conditions with local environmental and building professionals, met with local and state officials, created scale models, drafted a budget, and presented their proposal to the town selectmen. Along the way, they adapted and changed their design to accommodate code issues and community feedback.

These are just a few inspiring examples of how libraries are opening doors to meaningful STEM experiences. National Library Week is a great time to check into your local library and check-out something cool to inspire your curiosity. Like maybe a telescope! Tell us what your library is doing with STEM education in the comments.  

Top photo credit: Pima County Library

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